Submitted by Fred Patten
Doglands, by Tim Willocks
NYC, Random House, September 2011, hardcover $16.99 (308 [+1] pages), Kindle $9.99.
This has been published by Random House Children’s Books, but packaged to look like an adult title. Most reviews (non-furry) have compared it to London’s The Call of the Wild crossed with Adams’ Watership Down. The dogs in it talk to each other, which qualifies it for reviewing here.
“Once upon a time in the Doglands, a blue greyhound gave birth to four pups in a prison camp that the dogs called Dedbone’s Hole. The blue greyhound’s name was Keeva and she named her firstborn Furgul, which in dog tongue means ‘the brave.’ Keeva loved Furgul from the moment she saw him, but as she licked his newborn body clean and gave him her milk to drink, her heart was filled with fear. Furgul had been born with a terrible secret. And she knew that when the masters discovered his secret, they would take him away.” (p. 3)
Furgul is born into a puppy farm, specifically a greyhound breeding farm whose purpose is to produce as many greyhounds for dog racing as possible:
“When the pups no longer needed Keeva’s milk, they joined the other hounds in the exercise yard and Furgul got a better look at Dedbone’s Hole. A lot of greyhounds lived here, in a compound surrounded by a high wire fence. Outside the fence he saw a junkyard and some shacks. Inside the compound the greyhounds were locked in crates – one crate each, where each hound lived all alone – which were even smaller than the whelping cage that Furgul lived in. For just one hour a day the hounds were released from the crates to feed and exercise. The masters made sure there was never enough food for all the hounds, and so the hounds had to fight one another, snarling and biting at the filthy troughs of grub to get enough to eat. The older dogs said the masters starved the dogs on purpose to make them compete, so they could find out who was weak and who was strong and who might make a good racer. They did it to teach them that it was stupid to make friends. They did it because they were bullies who thought it was fun to feel so powerful.” (pgs. 4-5)
Furgul learns that his father was named Argal:
“‘Where is he?’ asked Furgul.
Keeva shrugged. ‘Your father is like the wind. He goes wherever he chooses and he does whatever he likes.’
‘Wow,’ said Furgul, ‘he must have a really great master.’
‘Argal doesn’t have a master,’ said Keeva. ‘He’s free.’
Furgul frowned. ‘What does ‘free’ mean?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Keeva. A troubled look came over her face. ‘Argal tried to explain it to me – something to do with what he called the Doglands,’
‘The Doglands?’ Furgul felt the fur on his back stand up on end. The word sang in his blood. ‘What did Argal say?’
‘I wasn’t really listening. I was in love.’
‘Where are the Doglands?’ asked Furgul.
‘I don’t know that either,’ said Keeva. Confusion and pain clouded her eyes. She looked out between the bars of the cage in which all five of them had to lie day and night in their own pee. She gazed out beyond the high wire fence, past the rusting heaps of trash in the yard, to the mountains on the far blue horizon. ‘Maybe the Doglands are somewhere out there.’” (pgs. 8-9)
Furgul’s secret is that Argal wasn’t a bloodhound, so he’s a crossbreed – a mongrel – and when he gets older and it’s obvious to the masters that he’s not a pure bloodhound, he won’t be eligible to race, and he’ll be put down. He has to escape first; to become free to look for the Doglands and his father.
At first, Furgul doesn’t escape as much as he goes through a series of terrifying mishaps that he is fortunate to get through alive. Then he becomes a pet, which is safe but both boring and frustrating. Whatever Furgul wants to do seems to get him a “No!”
“Then there was walking.
You would think that walking was the easiest thing in the world. But no. Walking was a whole new dimension of yelling and rules. First of all Furgul had to wear a collar all the time, which he hated. Then, whenever the dogs went outside, a leash was attached to the collar, so that Furgul had to walk in step beside a Grown-Up. Whenever he stopped to examine an interesting, unusual or delightful smell – like another dog’s pee – the Grown-Ups would tut and mutter and pull him away.” (p. 64)
When Furgul tries to escape from that life, Doglands turns into slapstick comedy. Here Furgul tries to disguise that he’s a loose dog by mixing in with eight other dogs being walked by an improbably oblivious dog walker:
“Furgal slipped into the middle of the pack and slunk along as close to the ground as he could. He blended in like Kinnear [a bulldog] at a squirrel’s birthday party. There was a Pomeranian, a cockapoo, a mini schnauzer, a Jack Russell, a Cavalier King Charles, a Yorkie, a dachshund and a chow. One had a bright pink collar with golden studs and another a leopard-print leash. Some wore ribbons and jewels in their hair. The dachshund wore a little red dress.
The tallest of them was twelve inches shorter than Furgul.
Worst of all, every one of the eight ‘dogs’ was a girl.
They all gaped at Furgul with their tongues hanging out.
‘I’m traveling in disguise,’ whispered Furgul. ‘So just act natural, girls. Don’t attract attention – and, please, keep your voices down.’
He was instantly deafened by a clamor of giggles, squeals and chatter.
‘Who’s this tall drink of water?’
‘Don’t look now, ladies, but he’s a dog. A real one.’
‘You know what they say about a long snout.’
‘Look at those scars!’
‘And those thighs!’
‘I bet he goes like a train.’
‘The cheeky devil isn’t even wearing a collar!’
‘He’s stark naked!’ (pgs. 88-89)
This is followed by the Dog Pound, and the story turns grim with the threat of death again. Then – well, Furgul has lots more adventures. Always going towards the Doglands.
Doglands (cover by Angelo Rinaldi) is very readable, but it’s no Watership Down or The Call of the Wild. The mood swings in the story are too artificial; they destroy any believability. Furgul often uses a simile in his vocabulary to something that he couldn’t know about. Here’s one of the worst:
Finally, Kinnear – who had watched these disasters with amusement – explained it to him. ‘Don’t you get it?’ he said. ‘Rupert is you new name. Your pet name.’
‘Rupert?’ said Furgul, horrified. ‘That’s even worse than Kinnear. Or Tic and Tac. It sounds like a bear’s name. A bear who wears checkered pants.’” (p. 63)
That’s something that Furgul wouldn’t know about – Doglands covers his life from his birth, and there are no bears in it. It’s also a reference to the English Rupert Bear children’s newspaper feature; he wears yellow checkered pants. Willocks’ inability to refrain from putting jokey in-group references into his novel have made it a clever writing exercise rather than a narrative that you can get lost in, like Watership Down or The Chronicles of Narnia. But how many furry books are classics? By all means, read and enjoy Doglands.